Even what we know, or what we think we know, is not what we may think it is. Take Christianity, take the Big Bang, take evolution. These are all unfinished achievements of men (man and woman). They are at best what the moment would have them. They are moments in history. But they are not end points, definitive statements of this or that. To be a Christian is always something new, if it would survive. Otherwise it is dogma as is so much of the church, mosque, temple, and synagogue words and writings. As for the Big Bang, clearly it’s not yet understood. And evolution, well it’s very nature is change. What evolutionist, such as myself, would ever say this is the way it is and always will be.
Christianity is one of the biggest sinners in trying to fix things for all time as being the truth about man (and his God).
But Christianity was at its beginning anything but the dogma that is ensconced in the Vatican, and in many other religious hubs. There were Christians, in the early years, and more and more of them, but they were of all kinds and most often competing for the top spot on the mountain and flinging their rivals down. And the history of Christianity, instead of being of the rich differences of men’s understanding of the story of Jesus, is a long sad tale of something much like the train of kings, as in France or England, those who fought to be on the top, bishops and emperors, popes and the alpha dogs of Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam (what’s the word for emperor or pope in each of the hundreds, thousands of the world’s religions?). And for a long time, through the long night of the Middle Ages, it seemed that Catholicism had won.
(For the article about Karen King by Lydialyle Gibson in the Harvard Magazine of November 2018, and from which I take most of what follows, please go here.)
King in her study of Christianity’s origins makes it clear just how varied were the earliest stirrings of Christianity, how rich and diverse were the various congregations who called themselves Christians. And King makes it clear that much has been lost by Christianity becoming in King’s words a single trunk of the tree of Christianity. Better than the single fixed trunk of a tree would be the myriad directions taken by the branches of a bush. Just as our own biological history is best represented by a bush, so is Christianity according to King.
And perhaps because of this she turned, and had her students turn with her, to the study of the World’s Religions, that being clearly a bush with innumerable branches, not a tree with a single trunk. And in particular with her students she looked closely in her introductory course to the religions of the world, right next door to where she was teaching at Occidental College, in the city of Los Angeles that held within its neighborhoods almost an infinite humber of cultures, and along with cultures religions.
She and two other instructors divided their students into teams and asked them to pick “a something,” she says. “It could be the local farmacia”—which, in Latino culture, dispenses folk cures, religious amulets and candles, and limpias (“spiritual cleansings”)—or a church, synagogue, temple, or whatever.
“LA has everything. So they went out and found religion, that is religions.”
King rented a bus and took the class to Pentacostal meetings, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, Hindu temples, a Buddhist monastery, a Muslim community center, the temporary synagogue of recent Russian Jewish immigrants. “Sometimes we would pick a spot on the map and draw a circle around it and send the students to find out what religion looks like inside that circle,” King says. The students would start by asking, “What do you believe?” By the end of the course, they were paying attention to artwork and architecture, music or the lack of it, teaching and meditation, prayer. They watched how worshippers gathered, whether men and women sat separately; they traced groups’ immigrant history.
The class altered King’s understanding of how to treat early Christianity. The thesis of the course had been that religion is at least partly a function of place. “I started noticing that scholars would talk about the ‘pure essence of Christianity,’ or what Christianity ‘is’ as a singular thing.
“But what Los Angeles shows you is that religion is always fully embedded in the culture of its place. It is diverse and always adapting.”
“And so that purity and synchronism are really artificial categories that don’t help us understand the complex beginnings of Christianity.” In Los Angeles, she once visited a Greek Orthodox church that displayed a timeline of Christian history in which the main trunk, from the origins of Jesus, led directly to the Orthodox Church, with Catholicism and Protestantism as side branches. In their own churches, of course, Catholics and Protestants each see themselves as the trunk.”
But of course the tree is a bush, and Christianity is just one (if you can even speak of it as one) among many branchings.